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Archive for March, 2012

Eloquence as Power

Where communication of information or reference are not the main focus of speech, the classical rhetoricians conceive of language, broadly speaking, as serving the ends of persuasion, but they do not speak of language as power. However, it is obvious that speakers vary in the degree to which their utterances are adjudged to be well-formed stylistically, and not just grammatically. When speech is acknowledged as rising to the level of ELOQUENCE, it becomes an instrument of power, specifically as a means of establishing the speaker’s PRESTIGE. Practically, then, prestige as power can be increased linguistically in the measure of the speaker’s eloquence.

Contemporary American speech, both public and private, is characterized, however, not by eloquence but by DISFLUENCY or DYSLALIA. What is meant here by these two terms is not their clinical sense (‘impairment of the ability to produce smooth, fluent speech’; ‘a speech defect caused by malformation of or imperfect distribution of nerves to the organs of articulation’), but a species of linguistic INEPTNESS (‘an interruption in the smooth flow of speech, as by a pause or the repetition of a word or syllable’); more specifically, by the inability to speak well, which involves word choice more than delivery.

The analogy with musical performance is particularly apt. A musician who does not have a superior technical command of their instrument will produce a disfluent, inarticulate, ineloquent performance, just as a speaker who does not have a superior command of their language’s vocabulary and syntax will produce inarticulate utterances (without any necessary violations of grammatical well-formedness).

Casting aside clinical terminology and expressing oneself in Anglo-Saxon vocabulary, those who habitually speak their mother tongue in a TONGUE-TIED manner––their number is now legion––not only subvert the referential function of language but, more importantly, lessen their prestige and hence their power.

It is interesting, in this connection, to compare Russian to American English. Notably, where English has no such designation in ordinary speech, Russian has a specific word for inarticulacy, косноязычие, which is a Church Slavonic compound noun consisting of the two lexical elements ‘stagnant’ + ‘tongue/language’. The very fact that such a word exists in the ordinary lexicon of Russian connotes a different SOCIAL SET (attitude) by speakers of Russian toward their language from those of English speakers. In practice, there is no gainsaying that even Russian children and adolescents––not to speak of adults with a fully developed command of vocabulary and syntax––are typically much more articulate than their American counterparts and exhibit none of the disfluencies that mar the latter’s utterances.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Alveolar Flap and Secondary Stress

In recent years there has been a marked tendency among younger speakers of American English for the alveolar flap [D], which is the sound that appears as the contextual variant of the phonemes /t/ and /d/ before unstressed syllables, to be replaced with a full stop [t] and [d]. Thus, the word student, which in standard/traditional American English is pronounced with an alveolar flap preceding the unstressed vowel, is heard in the speech of adolescents and young adults with a fully plosive [d] instead of [D]. Concomitantly, in this speech variant the unstressed vowel in student has a lesser degree of both quantitative and qualitative reduction, meaning that it approximates to its stressed variant [ɛ] as in tent, instead of the normative [ə] or [ɨ] in position after primary stress.

The probable reason for the eclipse of the alveolar flap in this position is not difficult to find. It has to do with the decline of fully reduced unstressed vowels throughout contemporary English pronunciation, a tendency spearheaded by younger speakers, possibly due the influence of the printed/digitized word. There is, more specifically, a symmetry or parallelism between the semiotic value of reduction in the consonant and reduction in the (post-tonic) vowel. The alveolar flap is, after all, a reduced variant of the basic plosive sound, in the sense that flapping is an attenuation of the acoustic and articulatory force that characterizes the unflapped, fully plosive basic variant t or d. Similarly, an unstressed vowel is a reduced contextual variant of the basic vowel. In both cases, therefore, it is a reduction that occurs, illustrating the linguistic principle which dictates that units and contexts (and their variants) are always governed by PATTERNS OF COOCCURRENCE.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Disfluent like: Toward A Typology

In the contemporary American English of adolescents and young adults (typically, females), the word like is a constant presence, mostly as a disfluent filler or discourse marker. Observation viva voce of raw speech specimens yields the following typology of functions of the word, in rough order of frequency.

(1) ticastic: for many speakers, the word is a verbal tic (whence the nonce adjective “ticastic”), replacing “you know” and its congeners, and having no other function than as a meaningless filler;

(2) phatic (perhaps as a sub-species of the ticastic): keeping the channel of communication open, sometimes for no other reason than to forestall a response from one’s interlocutor(s);

(3) quotative: as a prefatory marker before the report of someone else’s utterance(s) or inner speech;

(4) approximative: as a means of qualifying the extent or validity of the word or phrase immediately following, including its literal meaning;

(5) anaesthetic: as a way of deflecting the assertory force of anything following, usually as an apotropaism.

At bottom, all these modern-day extensions derive from and are parasitical on the word’s original meaning and its membership in the grammatical categories of adverb, preposition, and conjunction. What unites these originary uses is the fundamental sense of SIMILARITY underlying them. While it might be ontologically defensible to assert that some degree of similarity is characteristic of all relations, in this case what is being undermined is the very concept of IDENTITY. More precisely, the promiscuous extension of like in contemporary speech can be seen as yet another manifestation––here, linguistic––of the general historical tendency in American culture toward the LEVELING OF ALL HIERARCHIES.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Pragmatistic Force of Analogy in Language Structure

Every now and then, no matter how large one’s vocabulary, one encounters a word in a recondite text that requires a special effort to pronounce (to oneself) because of its exoticism. Thus, when reading the introduction to Proverbs in The Jewish Study Bible, I came upon the title of the Egyptian wisdom book, Instruction of Amenemope, and stumbled over the third word before settling on the correct stress on the antepenult.

Contemporary linguists are enamored of saying that language is “rule-governed,” by which they mean that the surface phenomena––just like the correct stress in Amenemope––are the predictable result of applying a rule that governs the assignment of primary stress in an English pentasyllable of the type anadiplosis, i. e., the sort of learned vocabulary that is derived from our Graeco-Latin patrimony.

This notion of language being governed by rules, typically of the form “IF – THEN,” i. e., “IF this structure, THEN this outcome,” no matter how apt descriptively, is theoretically utterly misleading, since what determines the assignment of the stress in the word at issue is ANALOGY, specifically the force that a pentasyllabic segmental structure (the fact of its having five syllables) exercises on the suprasegmental (prosodic) structure. More generally, it is the pattern of the analogical relations between syllabic structure and prosody (stress distribution) that determines where the stress is to be placed in a word.

The mechanicalist conception (as in modern physics) that holds sway in contemporary linguistics when theorizing about the structure of language is fundamentally misguided because it attributes the facts of language use to mechanical (efficient) causes instead of recognizing them for what they are, the results of a real tendency toward a type of outcome, i. e., the results of a final cause (in the Peircean sense,) which is precisely what is meant when one invokes analogy as explanans.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Moldiferate, v., intr. (Portmanteau Words)

A ‘portmanteau word’ (alias ‘blend’) is a word formed by blending sounds from two or more distinct words and combining their meanings, e. g., smog from smoke + fog. Apparently, the word portmanteau was first used in this meaning by Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass: “Well, ‘slithy’ means ‘lithe and slimy’.‥ You see it’s like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word.” The etymology (according to the Oxford English Dictionary Online) is from Middle French, French portemanteau ‘officer who carries the mantle of a person in a high position’ (1507 in Middle French), ‘case or bag for carrying clothing’ (1547), ‘clothes rack’ (1640) < porte- porte- comb. form + manteau manteau n. In the British English of Carroll’s time, a portmanteau was a suitcase. In modern French, a porte-manteau is a clothes valet, a coat-tree or similar article of furniture for hanging up jackets, hats, umbrellas, and the like.

As I sat contemplating my navel this morning, I suddenly remembered a portmanteau word created (with her nonpareil linguistic sprezzatura) by my late wife Marianne Shapiro to describe just my situation, namely moldiferate (mo[u]lder + proliferate), which is an intransitive verb meaning ‘to waste one’s time doing nothing while decomposing spiritually’. Another one of her creations in that vein is pestiferate (pestiferous + –ate), which she coined to mean ‘to cause to be pestiferous’. Neither word is in the OED, but they should be.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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